In Sunland Park, on the west side of El Paso, Customs and Border Protection has brought in the bulldozers to replace just over a mile of chain-link fence along the border with an 18 foot tall border wall.

The new wall will cost $11 million, but if history is any guide it isn’t likely to work.

The chain-link fence being replaced was erected two decades ago as part of the Border Patrol’s then-new strategy of “Prevention through Deterrence,” which was supposed to stop immigrants and smugglers at the border line.

Prior to 1993 the Border Patrol cruised El Paso’s poorer neighborhoods, stopping and demanding proof of citizenship from anyone that an agent thought looked like they might have crossed the border.  Sick of being harassed local residents sued, and the court found that the Border Patrol had violated El Pasoans’ Fourth and Fifth Amendment rights.

This led to a dramatic change in strategy.  The Border Patrol moved out of the neighborhoods and lined up along the border in a visible show of force called Operation Hold the Line.

The theory was that border crossers would be deterred from crossing when they saw the imposing line of uniformed agents.  They would take one look, give up, and go home defeated.

The reality was something else.

In 1994, a year after El Paso’s new strategy was implemented, the congressionally chartered U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform reported that, “It appears that a number of agents do not believe that Operation Hold the Line is successfully reducing the entry of undocumented aliens. One frustrated agent stated: “They are coming around us, above us, below us, and between us,” referring to the ends of the line, the railroad tracks which run above the Asarco area, the tunnels by the downtown area, and the space between agents.”

Cross border traffic was rerouted by Hold the Line, but not halted.

Residents of Juarez with jobs in El Paso went to the end of the Border Patrol’s line, a slight detour on the way to work. The chain-link fence at Sunland Park, just west of El Paso, was built in 1996 to cut off this alternate route.

The Sunland Park fence didn’t work either. Holes were cut through it, people crawled under or climbed over it, or they traveled an extra mile or two to the west and went around it.

The Border Patrol chose to ignore the failure of the barriers and the strategy that they were part of. They not only hailed Hold the Line as a success, in 1994 they declared that “Prevention through Deterrence” would be their strategy for the entire southern border.

Ten years later Congress doubled down on this failed strategy by passing the Secure Fence Act, which required 700 miles of wall along the 1900 mile long U.S.-Mexico border. Those walls were eighteen-feet-tall and made of steel bollards or mesh or concrete and cost close to $3 billion.  But the results were no better.

Again and again over the past decade the Secure Fence Act walls have been breached, in at least one case with a hole big enough to drive a truck through it cut out. Those who do not have the equipment to cut through steel bollards simply climb over the walls or go around them.

Earlier this month Chris Cabrera, the Deputy Spokesman for the National Border Patrol Council who has patrolled the Lower Rio Grande Valley for fifteen years, was asked, “do walls help?”

Cabrera responded: “When they first put up this wall, they put up a 18-foot wall, real nice and pretty.  The next day we had 19-foot ladders everywhere. It got to a point where they had to tell us to stop bringing ladders into the station because we had so many behind the building that we didn’t have anywhere to keep them anymore, so they were just telling them to destroy the ladders in place.”

He went on to say “Right now [the wall] is more of a hindrance because they use it as a stand alone, so people just go right up and over and we’re thinking that it’s secure there.”

It was only a few days after Agent Cabrera uttered those words that construction crews began work on the Sunland Park border wall.


After two decades of failure, why are we as a nation incapable of learning from our mistakes and accepting the fact that border walls do not work?

Endangered species have had their habitat fragmented by border walls, pushing them closer to extinction. Hundreds of landowners have had their property condemned.

And since “Prevention through Deterrence” went into effect, thousands upon thousands of men, women and children have been rerouted into brutal deserts, where hundreds suffer and die each year.

Customs and Border Protection knows all of this, but inexplicably they build and rebuild border walls, compounding their decades of failure.

They may not be able to stop border crossings, but they can, and should, stop building border walls.

Editor’s Note: The main photo accompanying this guest column was taken by Scott Nicol in 2012. It shows the border wall at the Hidalgo Pumphouse World Birding Center.